I know that this is a bold statement. Handwriting is a complex skill, with visual-motor coordination, perceptual, cognitive and postural components. But when I evaluate a child’s writing, and I watch them having to think about where to start and sequence movements to form a letter and place it on a line, and then decide how far apart the letters and words should be, it makes me think that the lack of automaticity is often a child’s biggest hurdle. Even if their motor control isn’t terrific, they can still have legible and functional writing if they make fewer errors and write fast enough to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time. Slow and labored writing isn’t functional, even if it is beautiful.
Think about how important it is for any visual-motor skill to become automatic in order to be efficient. You cannot hit that ball if you have to think about it. You just can’t. It has to be a smooth and automatic response that comes from practice and refined feedback loops developed by experience. While practicing, professional athletes drill down on minute aspects of the swing, but during the game, they choke if they “overthink”. Ask anyone who has done a ton of free-throws in basketball (you get an unimpeded chance to drop that orange ball into the hoop) for practice but cannot make it when the game is on the line.
In this current culture, teachers have so many skills to impart. Handwriting is still a skill children need. Paper workbooks and worksheets are still used extensively until 3rd or 4th grade. You cannot wait it out until kids get old enough to keyboard. And a struggling writer in second grade is already feeling bad about their abilities. Sometimes so bad that they don’t want to do the language arts work that develops spelling, vocabulary and creative expression. So waiting until they can type isn’t the answer. You want excitement and enthusiasm for reading and writing early on. Nothing develops excitement like success. Nothing kills enthusiasm like boredom and failure.
If automaticity is the key to handwriting success, how do you develop it in children? I think the folks at Handwriting Without Tears have figured it out. I no longer use any other handwriting materials. Their workbooks and pre-K multi-sensory learning tools are just too good.
- If you look at the pre-K and early primary workbooks carefully, you will see that the left-to-right, top-to-bottom orientation is embedded in everything. Even the cute animals for little kids to color are all facing left-to-right!
- The two lines (baseline and midline) are simple to use. No wondering where to place letters. The pre-K letters are at the bottom of the page, creating an emerging automatic sense of baseline.
- The developmental progression (versus the alphabetical progression) builds slowly from vertical and horizontal lines to curves and diagonal lines. Letters are grouped by the way they are formed, making automatic movements emerge early and consistently.
- Workbook pages aren’t overwhelming with activities, but the skills are repeated to intentionally develop writing automaticity.
For example, instead of writing 12 letter”B”s and 12 letter “b”s, uppercase letters, with their larger and simpler hand movements are taught together and earlier. Letters “b” and “d” aren’t taught together since they can easily be reversed. Letters “b” and “h” are taught together since the formation is very similar. Fewer reversals, more success without having to go back and re-teach letter formation.
Take a look at the best “pre-K into K” book I have ever seen, HWT’s KickStart Kindergarten. It is the perfect summer bridge activity for your preschooler or your older special needs child.
Happy summer writing!